Despots and Nannies

“A despot welcomes a riot. Disorder provides an excuse to rescind liberties in order to restore calm. There are only two choices, after all: chaos and control. Even the creators of Get Smart understood that.”

So says Alfie Kohn in an article on nanny reality shows.

And it’s funny, I was just thinking that.

In a series of discussions about whether, at base, civilization depends on violence, somebody suggested that the reason Gandhi’s nonviolence worked was that the gigantic pile of followers could conceivably have turned violent at any moment — that that threat of violence was what was behind it all. Same with MLKJr.

That is completely in disagreement with my understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent power: a violent mob is easy to deal with: you fight them. You destroy them. You use greater force. The fact that they fought you proves that your power is needed to keep order. Rebellion supports authority. It’s all part of the same dynamic.

Nonviolent resistance somehow breaks that cycle, in a way that I don’t totally understand, but in a way that has worked many a time.

In a sense, nonviolent resistance works because it enlists the oppressor in the service of liberation: it tries to deliver both oppressor and oppressed from the yoke of oppression that binds them equally. That was how Arnold Toynbee saw it:

To Toynbee, Gandhi was “as much a benefactor of Britain as of his own country. He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India, but at the same time he made it possible for us to abdicate without rancour and without dishonour.”

Kohn continues to critique the disturbing ideology of the nanny shows, and it’s worth reading, but there’s a lot to be said for the political truth of that little one-liner at the beginning.

1 thought on “Despots and Nannies”

  1. My personal theory for why non-violence can work goes like this:

    People tend to be reciprocal in their social relations. It’s documented that friendships in which one person does all the giving tend to breakup. Similarly, there’s the Japanese custom of giri in which a person must respond to a gift with a gift of the same approximate value.

    Doing anything else leads to shame and embarrassment.

    When a person responds to violence with violence it’s also reciprocal. When a person consistently responds to violence with non-violence, it leads to shame and embarrassment on the part of the violent person.

    You don’t get any social support for hurting someone who has not hurt you.

    Thus with the Civil Rights movement even people who didn’t believe blacks should have equal rights could only be horrified as marchers were attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses.

    They didn’t deserve it. They were just marching.

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